I was on a girls weekend, and my friend, Andrea, who is going back to school for her Associates degree in Nursing (on her way to becoming an RN—we’re so proud of her!!) told me about an amazing department on campus called TRIO. It’s a federally funded, national program that provides free academic support to students who are either low-income, first generation college students, or who have a documented disability.
Nationally, TRIO actually offers eight different programs that help students from middle school through college. They even have a program for veterans! And the funds aren’t limited to just colleges. They are also available to agencies and community-based organizations that serve disadvantaged youth or secondary schools.
Andrea is currently attending North Hennepin Community College (NHCC), and their TRIO department offers two programs: Student Support Services for current NHCC students, and Upward Bound, which helps eligible high school students prepare for college.
I wanted to learn more about the program, and the kind of people who make a career out of serving others, so I reached out to NHCC’s director of TRIO, Shelly Siegel.
Shelly’s passion for the TRIO program is contagious as she talks of growing up during the Vietnam War, learning from her parents to stand up for what she believes in. In 1989, Shelly graduated from the University of Minnesota as a nontraditional student with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, primarily due to the support she received from the TRIO program. “I can tell you that I never would have finished college, had it not been for TRIO. I got really involved in working with the program, and [shortly before graduation] I decided to change my career focus and become a professional in the TRIO program…It raised me. As a student. As a professional. It’s given me so much opportunity to grow in so many ways. I’m forever indebted to TRIO.”
The motivation for Shelly’s work comes from seeing students engaged with one another, either in the TRIO office or on day trips to Mayo Clinic, Paisley Park (Prince’s former recording studio and home), or Gillette Hospital. Many of the students have lived in poverty or in cultural circumstances that have prevented them from being exposed to the wide variety of careers possible, including those in STEM, health care, and the arts.
As their eyes are opened to the possibilities for their futures and the students start to collaborate, Shelly says their confidence grows, “Yes, income is a barrier, academics are a barrier if they don’t learn a certain way, but the biggest thing I see with these students is how their confidence builds [when they work together], and that’s what they need the most.”
It’s because of that confidence that so many TRIO students have applied for and won scholarships. At NHCC alone, 44% of foundation scholarships went to TRIO students last year “because we are continually putting scholarship applications in front of them and letting the students know how valuable and important they [the students] are and that they’re going somewhere. We have to keep building their confidence levels.”
Some of the biggest frustrations facing the students in TRIO are the same ones facing most of us today, but on a more intense scale. As Dr. Jermaine Davis of Century College points out, TRIO students simply have too much on their plates. With the shrinking middle class, there are more part-time students because they need to work one or two jobs in addition to school, and there is more student loan debt. However, Shelly is quick to point out that TRIO students take out less loans because they’re advised closely and don’t end up repeating classes or taking longer to graduate.
Shelly advises that the best way we can assist our family members and friends who are going back to school, regardless of circumstances, is to remember that for now, school has to come first for them. We can encourage our loved ones as they re-prioritize their lives and help them change their expectations of themselves. We can bring them a meal or watch their children occasionally while they study.
When we reach out and advocate for each other, we are all strengthened. We learn that our current situation does not have to define us forever. We can face the curve balls of life with grace and power, because our future really is up to us. And sometimes there’s even an exceptional organization like TRIO there to guide us to our goal.